World Food Safety Day 2020
Traditional or ‘informal’ markets—places that sell food outside of the formal, regulated food sector—supply 85 to 95 percent of the food consumed in sub-Saharan Africa. Even as incomes steadily rise, by 2040 they are predicted to still be meeting 50 to 70 percent of consumer demand for food. Informal markets include venues known as ‘wet markets’, so-called because they use so much water to clean the perishable and sometimes contaminated food being sold. Wet markets sell most of the livestock and fish products purchased in Africa. Informal markets also include street vendors, such as the milk hawkers that sell fresh, unpasteurized milk in urban areas.
Most poor Africans are smallholder farmers, but research shows that they are seldom sought out to supply the Western-style supermarkets opening up across the continent. Wet markets and street stalls often are the only venues where they can sell their produce, meat, milk or fish.
- They are typically within walking distance for people who lack cars.
- They offer the opportunity to purchase fresh food in small amounts.
- They often sell food on credit.
- They offer traditional foods their customers prefer.
- Products are cheaper, sometimes half the price of supermarkets.
- In many areas there are no other food vendors available.
Most food safety concerns focus on pathogens carried by meat, milk or seafood, which account for about two-thirds of food-borne disease. And experts predict that based on current trends, sub-Saharan Africa could experience an eight-fold increase over the next 30 years in demand for livestock and fish products.
Food sold in Western-style supermarkets may be no safer—and in some instances is even more dangerous—than what is found in informal markets. Studies in East and Southern Africa have found that, due to a poorly patrolled chain of custody between producer and seller and refrigeration problems, milk and meat sold in supermarkets may pose a greater health threat than food sold through informal markets.
At least one out of every ten cases of gastrointestinal or diarrheal diseases—a leading cause of death in the region—is contracted from food. Common food pathogens include rotavirus, Salmonella and Campylobacter. Food-borne parasites are common in many parts of Africa: among the most common and important are hydatid (sheep) tapeworm, pig tapeworm (cysticercosis), and roundworms. Neglected tropical zoonoses also persist: milk tainted with bacteria-like Brucella can lead to debilitating disease (brucellosis) while milk also can transmit tuberculosis (second only to HIV/AIDS as the greatest killer worldwide due to a single infectious agent).
The mere existence of pathogens in food is not necessarily an indication that consumers are at risk. In many parts of Africa, it’s common knowledge that certain foods may contain hazards and common practice to neutralize them by thoroughly cooking or, with milk, through boiling. In Ethiopia, traditional fermentation of milk has been found to provide a 200-fold reduction in the risk of Staphylococcus poisoning. That said, there are still some cultures where it is taboo to boil milk and others where traditional diets include raw meat dishes.
Compared to wealthy countries, milk, meat and fish play a bigger role in the diets and income of the world’s poor. They provide an essential source of protein and micronutrients with few if any substitutes available. For one billion poor farmers and fishers, sales of milk, meat and fish products through informal channels provide their main source of income.
In developing countries, most food is produced by the poor, for the poor. Attempts to make food safer by enforcing high standards can have unwanted effects, such as preventing small farmers and women from earning income from their work.
The most nutritious foods often carry the highest food safety risk. Thus, efforts to improve nutrition typically need to be made in tandem with efforts to improve food safety. Also, policies to promote food safety are often based on encouraging food sales through formal venues, such as supermarkets, and discouraging sales via informal channels, such as wet markets and street vendors. These policies have nutritional impacts because food in the informal sector is usually cheaper and sold closer to the consumer.
If it is not safe, it is not food. Food security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to food that meets their dietary needs for an active and healthy life. In fact, food safety is a critical part of the utilization component of the four dimensions of food security – availability, access, utilization and stability.
The World Health Organization estimates that more than 600 million people fall ill and 420,000 die every year from eating food contaminated with bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins or chemicals. According to the World Bank, unsafe food costs low-and middle-income economies alone about USD 95 billion in lost productivity annually. Unsafe food also limits trade.
Food safety is everyone’s responsibility and therefore everyone’s business. Today, food is processed in greater volumes and distributed over greater distances than ever before. Widespread collaboration and contributions of all actors in the food supply chain, as well as good governance and regulations, are essential to food safety.
Safe food allows for suitable uptake of nutrients and promotes long-term human development. Safe food production improves sustainability by enabling market access and productivity, which drives economic development and poverty alleviation, especially in rural areas.
The health of people is connected to the health of animals and the environment. Pathogens transmissible from animals to humans through direct contact or through food, water and the environment have an impact on public health and socio-economic well-being. Together governments, food producers, academia, experts, non-governmental and international organizations can combat food safety risks such as antimicrobial resistance as well as pathogenic bacteria on fruits and vegetables as a result of contact with contaminated soil or water and on animal-sourced foods.
Food safety experts at ILRI are supporting the African Union to generate evidence towards the Africa Food Safety Index which will help governments to prioritize investments in food safety, reduce the burden of foodborne illnesses and enhance safe trade of food.
Undernutrition and foodborne diseases are related. Infectious foodborne diseases commonly manifest as diarrhoea, which is strongly associated with stunting. Studies have found an association between aflatoxin exposure and stunting.
Pork is the most important animal food product in Cambodia and Vietnam. It is primarily processed and sold in traditional slaughterhouses and wet markets which, while addressing local consumer demand, often suffer from poor hygiene. Pilot tests have shown that simple interventions to improve hygiene during food handling in slaughterhouses and markets can enhance the safety of pork.
Video: Dying for meat
This photo-film features small-scale butchers and consumers interviewed in Nairobi and a commentary by ILRI scientist Delia Grace Randolph on issues that connect animal and human health.
Experts working on food safety
Professor of Veterinary Infectious Diseases, Institute of Infection and Global Health, University of Liverpool and Jointly Appointed Principal Scientist, ILRI
Professor of Global Food Safety and Zoonoses, University of Florida
The burden of unsafe foods is highest in low- and middle-income countries where informal markets dominate the food system. It is essential for protection of public health that we find culturally and economically appropriate solutions to implement known principles to produce safe foods in these markets.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and UK Department for International Development
There is no food security without food safety. Food is not nutritious unless it is safe. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development jointly support efforts to increase the consumption of safe, affordable, nutritious diets among low-income populations.
Erastus K. Kang’ethe
Professor of Public Health and Food Safety
Food safety is a shared responsibility between citizens and the public and private sectors. Informal markets serve both rural and urban areas with fresh foods. These markets account for about 40 per cent of the national Gross Domestic Product of countries in sub-Saharan Africa. They are characterized by poor infrastructure and food safety practices. There is need to prioritize food safety in these essential markets to reduce the burden of foodborne disease, estimated to cost Africa about US$16.7 billion annually.
Director, Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, World Health Organization
It is unacceptable that unsafe food is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year in particular among the vulnerable. Ensuring the provision of safe and healthy food in markets is everyone’s business every day to protect the health of the communities and build sustainable development.
Associate Professor, College of Veterinary Medicine and Agriculture, Addis Ababa University
Addis Ababa University, a pioneer institution of higher education in Ethiopia, has a long history of collaborative research with ILRI. We are proud of this research partnership through which we have undertaken several projects aimed at improving food safety in informal markets through participatory approaches that involve the community and take into account the social, economic and cultural contexts in which food is produced, sold and consumed.
Lystra N. Antoine
Chief Executive Officer, Global Food Safety Partnership
Food safety is critical to achieving ‘healthy people’ and today, more than ever, the links between animal and human health and economic health cannot be ignored. We need sustainable food systems that recognize the importance of informal markets, to deliver improved livelihoods and safe, affordable and nutritious diets for all.
Head, Food Safety and Quality Unit, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)
In many countries, food markets are a cornerstone of society to ensure food security and to provide economic opportunities. Food safety and food hygiene are essential to protect the health of consumers. FAO can provide the knowledge to food vendors, food handlers and governments alike to help ensure that food is safe. Food safety is everyone’s business, and FAO encourages all efforts to promote food safety at all steps in the food chain.
Co-chair of the board of Stop Foodborne Illness
We have learned from experience all over the world that consumer demands for safe food help drive improved food safety practices. African governments and international donors must work to raise food safety awareness and support consumers in demanding safer food in their local markets.
Pham Duc Phuc
Deputy Director, Center for Public Health and Ecosystem Research, Hanoi University of Public Health; Coordinator of Vietnam One Health University Network
Through our research collaboration with ILRI, we are helping to make food safe by building the capacity of food producers and traders and creating consumer trust in safe food.
Director, National Animal Health and Production Research Institute, Cambodia
Ensuring food safety and food security for the general public is a priority area for the Government of Cambodia. Addressing food safety and quality in Cambodia is a cross-ministerial responsibility. Cambodia has built and maintained adequate food systems and infrastructure to respond to and manage food safety risks along the entire food chain. Cambodia, through its veterinary authority, has been working closely with ILRI to train pork retailers on hygienic food handling to improve the safety of pork sold in the country's traditional markets.
Agricultural Counsellor to Vietnam and Thailand, Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands
All people deserve safe and sustainable food. Of course, the private industry is responsible for the safe and sustainable production of food and consumers for proper handling of food and not wasting it. It is governments to build a sufficient food safety system. The Netherlands and the Vietnamese government are working closely together to increase this food safety system in Vietnam.